Welcome back to POLI-TBT-ICS, a recurring column where we take a look back at the weird political moments of our past that are still relevant to the present day.
If everything feels simultaneously apocalyptic, inane, and hyperpartisan to you in 2018, it’s worth remembering that American political life in 2003 was no picnic either. The US was on the brink of waging an unjustified war on Iraq, and in order to get the congressional authorization to do so, the Bush administration promulgated misinformation about Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction.” The American psyche was teeming with fear and uncertainty, and as usual, Washington’s ruling class was playing offense. It was in that atmosphere that French president Jacques Chirac declined to back the Iraq War, noting, “For us, war is always the proof of failure and the worst of solutions, so everything must be done to avoid it."
And that's how, briefly and embarrassingly, French fries became “freedom fries.”
Neal Rowland, the owner of a restaurant called Cubbie’s in Beaufort, North Carolina, was the one who thought up the term. "Because of Cubbie's support for our troops, we no longer serve french fries. We now serve freedom fries," a sign posted in the restaurant’s window explained. According to a 2003 Associated Press report, he took inspiration from the “World War I days when anti-German sentiment prompted Americans to rename familiar German foods like sauerkraut and frankfurter to liberty cabbage and hot dog.” And so an international dispute about America’s right to wreak havoc in the Middle East was channeled into an inane culture-war squabble about how to identify fried potatoes.
Freedom fries garnered national attention when Walter B. Jones Jr.—the Republican congressman who still represents the North Carolina district where Cubbie’s was located—received letters from Rowland urging him to bring freedom fries to Washington, DC. The way Jones tells the story now, he never wanted to get involved in what he thought was “a really silly idea.” But at the urging of his then chief of staff, Glenn Downs, Jones wrote a letter to Republican Congressman Bob Ney—the chair of the Committee on House Administration, which oversees the cafeteria—requesting the change.
To his surprise, Ney (who later served 17 months in prison for corruption and did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story) liked the freedom fries idea. When announcing the changes to the House menu—French toast was similarly liberated—Ney said, "This action today is a small but symbolic effort to show the strong displeasure of many on Capitol Hill with the actions of our so-called ally, France.” Jones added, "Watching France's self-serving politics of passive aggression in this effort has discouraged me more than I can say.”
In response, a French embassy spokesperson told the Associated Press, “We are at a very serious moment dealing with very serious issues and we are not focusing on the name you give to potatoes."
The great potato controversy of 2003 provided easy fodder for the Daily Show, which both mocked and magnified the incredibly stupid sideshow. As Jon Stewart succinctly put it, “As war approaches, as hundreds of thousands of troops put themselves in harm’s way, the House of Representatives has busied itself by changing the names of menu items in their cafeteria.” In an episode a couple weeks later, Lewis Black lampooned the conservative effort to boycott French products. “Americans are taking out their aggression on french fries and Bordeaux,” the comedian began. “Protesters in New York have decided to boycott french wine by buying some and pouring it out in the sewer. Mmmm, this protest has the distinct bouquet of idiot! Let me explain something to —you can’t boycott something if you’ve already bought it.”
All this is a good reminder that the glut of recent efforts to boycott products and institutions deemed politically problematic—the Cheesecake Factory, Tito’s Vodka, Bulleit Whiskey, The Beauty and the Beast , and the NFL, to name a few—is not a Trump-era phenomenon. Deeply important American political debates have always played out through vapid culture wars. No matter how complex an issue is, it can always reach a level of stupidity where people are smashing coffee machines or burning sneakers to assert their views. You may say that it's important to have national conversations about tricky subjects, but that is difficult when people project their irrational fears and ill-formed ideologies onto seemingly apolitical entities.
In May, I spoke to Jones at his office in Washington, DC, and he was eager to take responsibility for his Bush-era mistakes, fries and all. “I didn’t believe any of it but I asked no questions,” he told me in his heavy Southern drawl. “When I had to make a decision, in my heart, I regret it, but I’ll be honest with you, I was too concerned about getting re-elected.” His district is home to tens of thousands of military veterans, and he knew if he voted against the war he wouldn’t have a chance at representing his district in the future—moreover, the people he represented were overwhelmingly in favor of invading Iraq.
“We think we can change the world, but certain parts of the world don’t want to be changed. My understanding of what I had done in the Iraq war in not being strong enough to vote my conscience has probably been an evolution of where I am now,” he said.
Since the freedom fries debacle, and the subsequent and far more important Iraq War fiasco, Jones has loudly atoned for enabling the expansion presidential powers to declare war, and is a rare breed of House Republican—a vocal anti-war activist. Jones told me that even though he’s “not a party person” (he does not support Trump and voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson in 2016) he’s still part of the GOP because he’s “a pro-life Catholic.” The political system, he told me, is about “get[ting] re-elected. It’s really not about the people.”
Jones went so far that after the Democrats won the House majority in 2006, he said he tried to convince them to impeach George W. Bush over the war. (Years later, he publicly contemplated impeaching Barack Obama if he signed an executive order protecting undocumented immigrants.)
The freedom fries incident eventually receded from the forefront of the national conversation—in 2006, the House cafeteria quietly went back to calling them French fries. Americans have continued to distract themselves with inane, petty spats—from the constant freedom fries-esque retaliation against corporate institutions that don’t share some consumers’ politics to the annual outrage over the White House Correspondents’ Dinner to Kanye’s MAGA pivot and Samantha Bee’s use of the C-word.
Meanwhile, the forever wars the US remains entangled in have mostly faded from the public discourse, though Jones is trying his best to get people to talk about them. He’s penned many letters to Donald Trump, pleading to get US troops out of Afghanistan.
“I just feel very frustrated we don’t debate anymore whether we should or should not be there,” he told me.
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